How libertarians confuse means and ends

When it comes to arguing politics, the most common rhetorical mistake is the confusion of means and ends.

For instance, the end of libertarianism, that is to say its goal, is the maximization of liberty. Sometimes, the issues that affect freedom are complex because there are actions that increase freedom for some people while decreasing it for others.

Instead of performing the arduous task of determining how each policy will affect every single person, libertarians use heuristics, or shortcuts, as a way of efficiently making the right decision. They balance the cost of making the wrong decision with the cost in mental energy of figuring out the right one.

My complaint with the libertarian movement is that it relies too heavily on these heuristics. Too often, libertarians are unable to see when their (usually) reliable heuristics misfire and reduce freedom instead of advancing it. The rules of thumb that were created to efficiently achieve libertarians’ goals have become ends in themselves – to the detriment of liberty.

A case in point is Ron Paul’s strong aversion to free immigration within North America. In a 2006 article that appeared on lewrockwell, Paul warns us of the proposed “NAFTA Superhighway” which would run from Mexico to Canada. Paul sees the breakdown of borders as a serious threat to sovereignty and therefore a cause for concern:

The ultimate goal is not simply a superhighway, but an integrated North American Union – complete with a currency, a cross-national bureaucracy, and virtually borderless travel within the Union. Like the European Union, a North American Union would represent another step toward the abolition of national sovereignty altogether.

This is a textbook case where Paul’s obsession with upholding national sovereignty has become an end in itself and leads him to support policies that reduce freedom. Paul’s obsession with sovereignty is so strong that he is blind to the fact that borderless travel would be a positive aspect of a North America Union and is an argument in its favor.

Paul continues:

The real issue is national sovereignty. Once again, decisions that affect millions of Americans are not being made by those Americans themselves, or even by their elected representatives in Congress…Any movement toward a North American Union diminishes the ability of average Americans to influence the laws under which they must live.

Essentially, Paul is arguing that Americans have less freedom if they lose the ability to vote on the policies that affect them. Again, Paul is confusing means and ends. Whether or not it’s a good idea for policies to be decided through voting depends entirely on how likely the voters are to select good policies. If it turned out that previously autocratic countries became more repressive upon granting their population the vote, that would be an argument against democracy. Democracy is simply a means to good government, not an end in itself.

In the same vein, if upholding national sovereignty requires restricting immigration, and therefore restricting freedom, then that is an argument against upholding sovereignty.

P.S. Oddly, Paul and other libertarians are able to understand this point if you change the issue from immigration to gun control. Libertarians widely praised the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller case, in which the Supreme Court overturned a handgun ban that had been enacted by the district’s city council in 1975. On that issue, libertarians didn’t mind the fact that the wishes of the district’s population were overridden by a centralized authority.


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